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DAWN 19 February 2009

Baloch demands still unmet
By Sanaullah Baloch

Islamabad's recent move to grant religious self-rule to the Taliban in Swat and the denial of political autonomy to the people of Balochistan are obviously beyond comprehension.

The establishment's unwillingness to end the costly conflict in the resource-rich, strategically significant region is a clear sign of the undemocratic approach towards resolving the Balochistan crisis.

The Government of Pakistan has signed several peace deals with religious groups in the NWFP and Fata, but the political crisis in Balochistan has been totally ignored and no serious effort has been made to end Baloch suffering.

The elite in Islamabad is flexible when it comes to dealing with violent religious groups but displays an intransigent attitude towards justified Baloch demands.

Balochistan's political demands do not contradict social, religious and democratic ideas. In fact, they include a) the governance of Balochistan by exercising the right of self-rule in the province, the ownership of resources, political participation and control over the local economy; and b) security arrangements, including control over the paramilitary forces and the police. These are very practical and justified issues and in tune with international political norms.

Last year's Feb 18 polls and the PPP's takeover of power created some hope in the desperate Baloch community that the new government would heal the province's wounds and bring an end to the misery of the Baloch population.

They were Baloch population hoping that the sun would shine again and that the clouds of conflict would dissipate, the strains of happiness would fill the air and the days of requiem would end forever.But unfortunately, the PPP and the establishment failed to capitalise on the Baloch hope for positive change.

There was rhetoric and no action on the part of the rulers. This increased the frustration of Baloch activists about a negotiated settlement of the Baloch-Islamabad conflict.

The PPP leadership also underestimated the complex Baloch-Islamabad relations based on the establishment's unchanged policy that sees Balochistan as a permanent threat and the Baloch as disloyal citizens.

True, Asif Ali Zardari tendered an apology to win the hearts and minds of the distressed people of the province and his move was cautiously welcomed by the Baloch nationalist parties. However, the insistence was that negotiations could only be held with the ruling coalition if the establishment's notorious policies vis-à-vis the province were overturned.

The PPP government has not been able to change Islamabad's elite perspective on the deprived Baloch, and over the past year has not been able to fulfil promises made to the people.

These include a) completely ending the military operation and halting the construction of military and paramilitary cantonments, b) withdrawing security forces, c) repatriating and rehabilitating displaced persons, d) cancelling civil/military land allotments, e) demilitarising the area, f) ensuring equal wellhead prices for Balochistan's gas, and h) abandoning torture camps and establishing a 'truth and reconciliation commission' for the trial of those involved in killing veteran Baloch leaders Nawab Akbar Bugti and Balach Marri, and other human rights violations.

During the Musharraf regime the Balochistan situation was shocking enough. Today, it is more frightening. Thousands of displaced families are living in dreadful conditions and arbitrary arrests, disappearances, blockades and restrictions on freedom of movement have not ceased. As observed by many Baloch politicians 'the troops are still active; their intelligence networks are still operational and hounding people struggling for their rights'.

The last eight years of conflict have not only resulted in the physical and social breakdown of Baloch society, they have also badly affected the economic framework of the province. Poverty has increased, unemployment has surpassed all limits, provincial GDP is on a constant decline, government spending on law and order has mounted, industrial and economic growth is bungled and investment levels are low.

In addition, aggressive action on the part of the law-enforcement agencies and intolerance towards moderate Baloch political activists have provided an opportunity to criminal gangs, banned sectarian groups and religious fundamentalists to regroup and flourish, resulting in an increase in kidnappings, ransom cases, sectarian killings and robberies.

The military's reliance on brute force produced a short-term victory for Islamabad in 2006, but in reality the central government has lost its moral, political and physical authority in the region.

The situation will also have serious economic and strategic implications for Islamabad. Balochistan has been Pakistan's energy basket for years. Policymakers have to rethink their current strategies and demonstrate their willingness to grant substantive political and economic autonomy to the people to ensure Pakistan's energy and strategic security.

There is no doubt that a mistrust of Himalayan proportions exists between the Baloch and the establishment, and that this is one of the major causes of conflict. The Baloch have given 60 years to Islamabad to change the fate of the

region but have, instead, been showered with bombs and bullets. Political, economic, social, educational and cultural values have been all but destroyed in the province.

Now it is Islamabad turn to trust the Baloch vision about governance and to deliver the goods. Without granting political authority and economic freedom this will not be achievable and prolonged conflict in the area will be to no one's good. Weapons will only add to miseries and breed hatred.

The PPP-led government should take sincere measures for a rethink of Islamabad's policy on Balochistan. This is essential to turning the situation around for the Baloch who are currently unable to break out of the vicious cycle of frustration and despair. They have witnessed enough apologies, enough promises, enough excuses and enough sufferings. They now want a peaceful Balochistan which is ruled by them.


Sanaullah Baloch